God Thought 8/3/22

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral
How Christians Form Beliefs, Even If They Don’t Realize It  

One of the concepts I’ve found most helpful in my own practice of theology is the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. It was articulated by Albert C. Outler to describe the theological method of John Wesley, and it names four authorities for Christian theology: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.

Outler emphasizes that scripture is the primary and ultimate authority (and has said that he regrets the term quadrilateral, because it “has been so widely misconstrued” as suggesting four equal authorities¹). The Quadrilateral is not intended to downplay the centrality of scripture, but it recognizes that sound interpretation of scripture does not occur in a vacuum. If we wish to read scripture well, we must make use of all the tools at our disposal.
The United Methodist Church puts it like this:

Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.

I would argue that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is not only prescriptive (a proposal for how we should form beliefs) but also descriptive (an observation of how we all form our beliefs already).

Among those who hold the Bible as our highest authority, there is a temptation to mistrust any insight that is not received directly through reading the text (or at least, through listening to someone who has a Bible open in front of them). But this suspicion is misguided, because none of us read and interpret the Bible in a vacuum. Outler notes Wesley “was well aware that Scripture alone had rarely settled any controverted point of doctrine. He and his critics had repeatedly come to impasses in their games of prooftexting — often with the same texts!”²
We cannot help but be influenced in our interpretation of scripture by tradition, reason and experience. Our only choice is in the quality of tradition, reason and experience by which we are influenced.

All Christians are shaped by tradition — some by a rich history of belief and practice passed down over centuries, and others by traditions that sprung up a decade ago in their own congregation (which they assume to be the plain truth of Scripture, held by true Christians in all times and places).

All Christians are shaped by reason — some by careful reflection, discussion, and weighing of competing arguments, and others by logical leaps and unexamined presuppositions, wishful thinking, circular reasoning, sweeping generalizations, and mistrust of all who think differently.
All Christians are shaped by experience — some by encounters and dialogue with Christians from a broad spectrum of doctrine and practice, as well as non-Christians of all stripes, and others by a fear of contamination by those who disagree, which keeps them within an echo chamber of like-minded dogmatists.

And of course, all Christians are shaped by Scripture — some by careful study of the text itself and the insights of more learned readers, and others by a handful of favourite verses, assumed to communicate divine truth to 21st-century, western ears with the crisp clarity of the evening news.

Two points of clarification

At this point it sounds like I’m dividing all Christians into two types — those who are well guided by these four authorities, and those who are not. But of course this is a false dichotomy, and if we paint whole groups of Christians as ignorant and irrational, we’ve fallen into exactly the kind of self-righteous dogmatism that we’re trying to avoid. Reject a doctrine if it is contradicted by scripture, tradition, reason and experience; do not reject it because it is held by fundamentalists.

Similarly, it may sound as if I’m preaching a sort of scholarly elitism. Not so! There are Christians who have read little but are eager to consider the thoughts and experiences of others. Conversely, one can be a well-read dogmatist. So it’s not a question of the volume of voices you’ve considered, but of keeping a posture of humility and openness to new perspectives. As long as we are open to re-examining our cherished beliefs, we are open to the Spirit’s teaching.

In summary
  • It’s not a question of whether a Christian’s actions and beliefs are influenced by these four authorities, but of how well they are influenced.
  • The quality of your Quadrilateral is not a dichotomy but a continuum, and not a standard to achieve but a posture to maintain.

¹ Outler, The Wesleyan Quadrilateral — in John Wesley, in Weslyan Theological Journal, Spring 1985, p.16 (PDF).
² Ibid, p. 9.

(Written by Jacob) https://gyreblog.com/the-wesleyan-quadrilateral-79ed7a3c95bf

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